How a simple experiment about impulse control became a seductive gospel truth. By MICHAEL BOURNE
Caveat Emptor! Any time we read research that offers a simple formulation of a complex issue or answers to thorny questions-- 'buyer' beware! --Lou
Excerpts: "...But the marshmallow study is itself a classic “hot” stimulus. If it were really true that you could sit a child down, hand her a marshmallow and 15 minutes later be able to predict her SAT score — well, think of all the money you could save in private-school tuition and SAT prep. Stated like that, the proposition sounds absurd, yet the notion that deep within us is a switch that determines the course of our entire lives is so seductive that it’s hard to distract ourselves with the caveats. It’s hard to keep from overextrapolating from a study that drew its subjects from a relatively homogeneous group of children of academics. It’s hard to remember that, even if the marshmallow study and others like it are completely accurate and reproducible across wide ranges of populations, an ability to resist temptation is one factor among many that shapes our lives. Willpower can do only so much for children facing domestic instability, poor physical health or intellectual deficits......
And there we are staring down that “hot” stimulus again. The real world is fantastically complex with thousands of factors, some tiny, some enormous, acting on us every day. Did I drift in my 20s because I lacked the temperament to stick with a goal or was I merely exploring my options until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life? Is that child dropping out of school because she lacks grit and determination or is she making a rational decision that, thanks to institutional racism or endemic unemployment in her community, school just isn’t worth the effort? Either may be right. Or neither. Or both.
But that isn’t what we want to hear. We want the instant gratification of an easy answer. We want to hear that character traits can be taught like algebra and geometry and that if you can resist eating a marshmallow at 4, you possess the secret to a successful life. We want the world to be a big fluffy marshmallow, and we want to gobble it up. We want to eat the first marshmallow, but get the second one, too."